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Drums Along the Blacktop

These Parts/Three Oaks, MI


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Jellyeye, Cindy Salach, and Abiogenesis Movement Ensemble

at Doghaven Centre for the Arts, June 24 and 25

This might have been the first time I saw a performance two nights in a row. It happened quite by accident: literally, an accident on I-94 made me a good hour late for the opening performances at Doghaven, a summertime center for the arts founded last year in Three Oaks, Michigan, by Abiogenesis director Angela Allyn and her husband, photographer Matt Dinerstein. By the time I arrived it was twilight; but as I drove down a secluded blacktop road bordered by cornfields and woods, I saw lights up ahead.

Two cars faced each other on opposite sides of the road at a distance of 20 feet or so, their headlights creating an impromptu stage. As I got closer, I saw people milling about, silhouettes in the fog, and thought this might be some southwestern-Michigan-style rave in which teenagers gather on a country road to dance. Getting closer still, I saw smashed-steel-and-molded-plastic kettle drums on wheels, and knew that I had arrived at Doghaven: this could only be the equipment for Chicago's percussion ensemble, Jellyeye.

I pulled over, behind a van. About 30 people were standing around in a fine, misty rain, waiting for Jellyeye--the second half of the show--to begin. The eight-member troupe stood in a circle facing their hip-level castered drums, holding their sticks high, then lowering their arms ever so slowly in unison, their faces at once calm, grave, and blank. First a soft rumble emanated from the drum skins, a sound that seemed magnified at the center of the road where they stood, then bounced off the trees and abruptly ceased. It started big but got lost in the bigger sounds of trees, rain falling, birds calling, and the faint roar of the highway in the distance. The drummers created echoes for one another by varying the phrases--as in a fugue, the sound changed almost imperceptibly at first, then enlarged until it became a sort of percussive curtain.

The choreography in turn became broader and more robust, and after about ten minutes the performers were fairly slamming their sticks into the drums and jumping, leaping, and galloping. When their feet hit the asphalt, their arms slammed the sticks against the drums and the rims, and as the sticks hit, their bodies again flew into the air. Sometimes turning, sometimes exchanging drums with neighboring performers, they wildly wheeled their instruments out of a circle into a square, then back into a circle, continually varying the arrangement of performers on the gleaming road. They yelped, gasped, called, and screamed. Dogs in the audience (there were at least four on Friday night) barked in response. I've probably seen close to 50 shows at Ravinia, and countless more at Grant Park, yet this was the first time I'd seen an outdoor show that seemed to have some palpable relationship to the environment.

Saturday night there were at least 40 people at Doghaven, more dogs, more children, and an audience almost as interesting as the performers themselves: local people, teenagers, and Chicago artists like Robin Richman (who has an eclectic collectibles store in the area known as Global Dry Goods). Abiogenesis Movement Ensemble kicked off the evening with Allyn's new piece about the tragic life of the sculptor Camille Claudel, Rodin's mistress and assistant. It was performed in a garage to the right of the house where Allyn and Dinerstein live.

Still in development, this piece seems unformed and naive. Though the staging, art direction, and set design are effective, it has a long way to go to establish a rapport between the performers and the audience. For one thing the writing hasn't achieved the rhythm, the cadences of everyday speech. At one point Rodin says, for example, "At that time artists of my stature often slept with their students . . . " This line produced some giggles, and for good reason. Artists and art professors with and without "artistic stature" continue to sleep with models, teaching assistants, and students even in this PC age, in exchange for grades, scholarships, professional connections, or any kind of foothold in a competitive environment. That artists "of stature" abuse their power is something that has not changed an iota since Rodin's time.

Jennifer Farrel was a quite literally clay-encrusted Camille Claudel. Though possessed of a sweet, slightly distracted presence, she needs to ferret out more of her character's eccentricities and strengths. Handwringing and an air of desperation are not enough to tell the story of the relationship between an all-consuming artist and a consumed and spat-out artist/victim.

Cindy Salach of Loofah Method performed several poems so beautifully and simply that each word and gesture seemed possessed of an internal radiance. Especially wonderful were a poem about Prague and another about her grandmother.

We were led to the road for Jellyeye's performance, which took place sans rain. This time the sound was bigger, probably because it wasn't muffled by rain, as were their movements and gestures. Afterward someone made a fire, and audience members and performers roasted marshmallows and sipped wine and beer.

These were probably two of the more unusual performance evenings I've experienced. Doghaven will be hosting workshops throughout the summer as well as music, poetry, drama, and performance evenings. (Call 616-756-3856 for information.) Though everyone in the area says you can get there in an hour and a half, I know from experience that you should allow at least two or two and a half.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Matt Dinerstein.

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